AS TONY BLAIR arrived at Heathrow airport early today, he could have been forgiven for wondering whether he should have entered the minefield of Middle East politics.
Having endured an embarrassing public rift with the Syrian President, Bashar Assad, and a robust encounter with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, Mr Blair knew his latest bout of shuttle diplomacy had failed to deliver favourable headlines. But despite appearances to the contrary, the Prime Minister and his entourage insisted that his trip had been a qualified success.
There was sharp contrast between what seemed a presentational disaster and the behind-the-scenes glimmers of hope. Perhaps for the first time, Downing Street realised that the spin and soundbites that had served New Labour so well at home lacked the subtlety so often needed for international diplomacy.
After a gruelling, 7,000-mile trip that had taken in five countries and one proto-state in Palestine, Mr Blair looked tired, but his enthusiasm remained undimmed. Acutely aware of the criticism that he was an innocent abroad, naively seeking to right the world's wrongs, he refused to be deflected from his attempt to re-start the Middle East peace process.
As Mr Blair put it at yesterday's press conference with Mr Sharon: "The one thing that is clear is that this is a very, very difficult and fraught situation, but I think it's better to be here and take part first hand and listen to what people have to say."
When he left London on Tuesday, Mr Blair set out with a clear plan, and armed with one or two choice phrases to repeat throughout the trip. On the peace process, he would stress there were two "fixed points" to which all parties would have to return: the existence and security of Israel alongside a stable, legitimate Palestinian state. His other, equally important, message was to say that "violence from whatever quarter" and "terrorism in all its forms" had to end.
He hoped that such public messages would provide enough cover for the real business of his mission - to secure promises of military aid from the Saudis and crucial new engagement in the peace process by the Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians.
Within minutes of the start of his meeting with Mr Assad, Mr Blair judged that the new young President could offer the fresh thinking that was vital for any resolution of the region's problems. Nevertheless, the Blair party were taken aback when President Assad launched into vigorous criticism of the allied bombing, as he stood alongside the Prime Minister in a televised press conference in a cavernous hall of the Presidential Palace in Damascus. Mr Blair realised immediately that the first visit to Syria by a British prime pinister was in danger of turning into a public relations fiasco that provided an international platform for Arab criticism of the US and UK military action.
However, Mr Blair decided not to go on the offensive, preferring to tell his officials later that there was a significant difference between what the Syrian President had to tell his domestic audience and what he conveyed in private.
Normally such a media disaster would have triggered an inquest into what went wrong. But Mr Blair shrugged off the incident as part of the ritual of diplomacy. As his spokesman put it: "It takes someone to go face to face with each leader and to reassure them that not only we are serious but that other leaders are serious players. This is not about providing instant results, this is about the slow accumulation of understanding of where we are. It was intended to prepare the ground for engagement. …